Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category

Prague

June 21, 2017

A decade and a half ago, I took a few post-baccalaureate courses at our local university, Appalachian State. I had some educational strategies in mind. Those plans didn’t really pan out. Nevertheless, what I learned at that time sharpened some research skills that had been dormant in me since I had become a worker bee many years prior, in 1977.

In one education course that I took, we learned about a strategy called Compare and Contrast.

In the  years since that phase of life I have found Compare and Contrast to be a helpful idea when describing any two things.

In this case, I apply the method to two periods of time that are described in a book that I am presently reading. Under A Cruel Star, A life in Prague 1941-1968 was written by Heda Margolius Kovaly, and published in 1986 by Plunkett Lake Press of Cambridge MA.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_a_Cruel_Star

HedaPrag

The book is biographical; its focus is on one period in Heda’s life in post-war Prague, after we Allies had run the Nazis back into their holes.

Heda Margolius Kovaly was so fortunate to be a survivor–an escapee, no less– of the Nazi concentration camps;  Her book of which I write, Under a Cruel Star, begins with a harrowing account of her ordeal in sneaking out of the concentration camp at a time when the war was not yet over  then laying low as she slinked through Poland into the Czech lands and at last managed to sneak into  into her home city of Prague.

When she got to the city, Heda found the whole place bound up with Nazi paranoia. Which is to say: the Nazis were paranoid of losing what they thought they had conquered. At the same time, the locals–the Czechs and Slovaks–were still paranoid because that’s all they had known for the last six years.

After a while, the the Russians came in and “liberated” the place. Thank God.

But they had big plans for eastern Europe–Communist plans.

In the late 1940’s, the Soviets moved all their control-freak gear and Party personnel into the eastern European nations, including Czechoslovakia, Heda’s home country. In Soviet-controlled Prague, Czechoslovakia, the bossy Russians and their local Czech lackeys slowly and insidiously came to  dominate every aspect of life, with an intent to show the world how Communism, as prescribed by Marx, Lenin, Stalin et al, could be be accomplished.

Long story short, they made a big frickin’ mess of it.

Heda Margolius Kovaly and her husband were right there in the middle of all of it in the early days of Czech communism. Rudolf, her husband was appointed to an important job, a real plum of a job, as a project chief in the Ministry of Foreign Trade.

In her personal story, Heda gives an account of how Russian hegemony became more and more secretive, abusive, and cruel after the Communist coup in ’48. People were desperate for some kind of rebuilding of life, and they paid dearly for their willingness to accept the Soviet prescription for a better life. But it did not work out that way. 

The flaws in Communist ideology drove Czech life into a real dead end. Instead of life getting better for all the good comrades, life in Prague got worse and worse under the enforced Soviet regime. Heda  raises the question of how. How could the Czechs and others in eastern Europe have been so gullible and vulnerable to the force-fed communism?

The main reason these people had been rendered so vulnerable to Russian control and abuse is this: they had been extremely traumatized and debilitated by the incredibly oppressive, cruel Nazi occupation from which they had been liberated. Furthermore, on that side of Europe, the Russians were the liberators; they ran Hitler’s armies back into their holes. In that first  year of occupation, 1945, they were heroes.

After the war and all that life-shattering chain of events, the people of eastern Europe were worn out, broke, busted and disgusted. For the Russians, these people were easy pickin’s, with their hands stretched out, desperately seeking help and some resources to rebuild their cities and infrastructures.

And looking for somebody to tell them what to do, since they were still in a kind of wartime shell-shock.

But Russians came in with an agenda. It’s called communism. And the Ruskies did not have a lot of trouble getting these desperate people cranked up on a little Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist indoctrination. Power pounces on  a void.

Tank

Why were the people of eastern Europe so vulnerable to Soviet hegemony?

Part of Heda’s postwar explanation goes this way:

“Usually, the reasoning went something like this: if for purposes of building a new society, it is necessary to give up my freedom for a time, to subsume something I cherish to a cause in which I strongly believe, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make. In any case, we are a lost generation. We all might have died uselessly in the camps. Since we did survive, we want to dedicate what is left of our lives to the future.

“This streak of martyrdom was stronger that was generally understood. People felt chosen by destiny to sacrifice themselves, a feeling that was reinforced by a strong sense of guilt that characterized many who had survived the camps. Why was I alive and not my father, my mother, my friend? I owed them something. They had died in place of me. For their sake I had to build a world in which this could never happen again.

“This was where the misconception lay: in the idea that communism was the one system under which it could never happen again. Of course we knew about the communism of the thirties in the Soviet Union, but that was an era of cruelty that had ended long ago, the kind of crisis out of which all great change is born. Who today would condemn democracy for the Terror of the Jacobins after the French Revolution?

“The most eagerly embraced belief of the time was that no national or racial oppression could exist under communism . . .”

A couple of pages later, Heda arrives at this assessment:

“It was an insidious process and as old as the world. Had it not been for the war and the overwhelming need for change, we would have seen through it easily.”

Now here is where the Compare and Contrast (that I mentioned earlier) comes in.

That naive willingness to accept the communist game plan was in 1945, immediately after the trauma and desperation of the war.

Let’s fast-forward to 1952, after the Communist Party had been been running their postwar recovery show in eastern Europe for about seven years, and after Heda’s husband, Rudolf, a dedicated, very intelligent, workaholic apparatchik of the State had suddenly been arrested and imprisoned without explanation, without trial, and without any indication of where he was being held, or how long he would be detained, or when he might be released.

In her darkest days of disillusionment with the dysfunctional state of the State, in the grip of despair over the unsure fate of her imprisoned husband, Heda begins a chapter of the book by providing this description of what Czech life had become:

“Life in Prague. . . had acquired a totally negative character. People no longer aspired toward things but away from them. All they wanted was to avoid trouble. They tried not to be seen anywhere, not to talk to anyone, not to attract any attention. Their greatest satisfaction would be that nothing happened, that no one had been fired or arrested or questioned or followed by the secret police. Some fifty thousand people had so far been jailed in our small country. More were disappearing every day.”

Compare Heda’s postwar description of the the Czechs’ willingness to accept Russian hegemony– when the liberated people were compliant to help bring in the communist agenda for rebuilding the nations– Compare it to her description of how things actually turned out seven years later.

You’ll find a big difference there, a huge contrast, like the difference between day and night.

But here’s the good news. In 1989, the peoples of eastern Europe–Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slavs and others, cast off the chains of Soviet domination, and the light of liberty began to shine again.

We need to help them strengthen the good that was gained in 1989.

Smoke

A simple act of kindness goes a long way

June 12, 2017

“Encountering human kindness such as that became the highlights of my otherwise dreary existence.”

These words were spoken by a man who had spent eleven years imprisoned in a Stalin-era Russian gulag. The act of kindness of which he speaks was something very small, but very important. In 1953, a young woman doctor who was working in the prison smuggled in a blank postcard, then passed it secretly to a prisoner, Roland Gottlieb, so that he could send a message beyond the prison walls to his wife and three daughters.

By that time in 1953, Roland’s wife, Ruth, had already spent more than eight years waiting for her husband to be released from the political prison. During those years she didn’t even know if he was alive or dead. It was a very long period of terrible anguish for her and for their  three daughters, as they lived from day to day wondering where the hell  Poppa was, or if they’d ever see him again.

Hell on earth it must have been for them, and for him.

For Poppa, who endured not only cruelties, near starvation, physical abuse and the frigid Siberian weather, the worst part was not knowing anything about his family, not knowing where they had ended up after he was taken prisoner by the Russian army in Bulgaria, not knowing if the girls even knew what had become of him, not knowing if he would live to ever see them again, not knowing anything except the day-to-day hell-on-earth of captivity in Stalin’s gulag.

Then one day a brave doctor’s willingness to risk her own career and safety made it possible for Roland to at least send a few words–a long-overdue update– about his location and condition (alive) to his loved ones.

Here’s a cover pic of Ruth, to whom the secret postcard was addressed, and to whom the card was delivered, four months after it was mailed.

LivesDiv

  https://www.amazon.com/Lives-Divided-family-apart-Russian/dp/1490404236

You can read more about this long ordeal of separation in Birgitta Gottlieb McGalliard’s autobiographical memoir, Lives Damaged. It’s a good book about the first eleven years of her life, which happened to be the same eleven years that her father was in prison, simply because he was (doing his duty as a German diplomat protecting war refugees)  in the wrong place (Sofia, Hungary) at the wrong time (when the Russian army took over the place) in 1944.

Birgitta was born a few months after her father was hauled to a Soviet prison in Siberia. She never even saw her father, never even touched him, until she was eleven years old. And when she did finally see him, and hug him, and at last get to talk to him and get to know him, she asked him some questions about the bad people he had encountered  in prison. And he spoke to her and to the family about the bad people there, some of them prisoners and some who were staffers. But then he said:

“Just as these blatnois were bad, I found equally many if not more ‘good’ Russians, like the young female doctor who took pity on me when I was in the punishment camp after the Vorkuta Revolt in 1953, where writing was strictly prohibited. She smuggled a postcard to me so that I could write home. She could have been severely punished if she hand been caught. If it hadn’t been for her kindness, you never would have received that first postcard from me.”

That “first postcard,” when it finally was delivered, was a major milestone, a turning point in the life of their family.

That major milestone was made possible by a very small, seemingly insignificant act of smuggling a postcard in and out of the prison, and yet . . .

Later, after his release in 1954, looking back on it and trying to capture an explanation of it all for his daughters, Roland Gottlieb said:

“Encountering human kindness such as that became the highlights of my otherwise dreary existence.”

Kindness stands out. Its effects go far beyond the pale.

The milk of human kindness–it goes a long way toward the healing of the nations, and the healing of people whose suffering is a consequence of the injustice and evil that men do to each other throughout history. A brave doctor’s small act of postcard benevolence, along with a few other small deeds like it, is what  enabled the prisoner to hang on to a thin thread of hope. It’s what he remembered more vividly than anything else about what happened in his eleven-year gulag nightmare: Kindness from a brave soul whose courage to act enabled him to cross a bridge from perpetual discouragement to newfound hope.

It’s no wonder that Paul, the 1st-century itinerant Christian messenger, included kindness in his lists of the “fruits” of our Creator’s Holy Spirit.

Kindness. You can beat it, but you can’t defeat it.

Smoke

A Woman from the War

January 13, 2017

I think it was several thousand years ago that we heard about a war between the Greeks and the Trojans. And this collective memory in our mankind memory bank is evidence that this war thing that we hear about– and sometimes catch a glimpse of while others of us jump bravely into the fray–this war thing has been with us for a long time.

Now it is not very often you meet a woman who has spent 28 years in the US Army, but this is what happened to me yesterday.

I walked into a room where some folks in my hometown were gathered for a certain purpose, and at the end of the meeting I met Lieutenant Colonel Lory Whitehead. What she had to say seemed important to me, so I gave her some money and she handed me a book of poems she had written. This is what happens in America. She had something to sell, and I bought it. And when I read the little book of poems it knocked my sox off. May we always be so free to exchange information without censorship and without meddling from whomever is surveilling at any particular place and time.

I’ve never been in the military, but I know people who have served us in that way. I have no understanding of what these brave souls go through; but because I read Lory’s collection of letters, memoirs and poems that she collected over almost fifty years, I at least have some feeling about what these people go through to defend our freedom.

I was born in 1951. But about ten years before I came into this world, there was one hell of a big war that happened on this planet. While growing up, I learned about it in school, and every now and then I’d meet someone who fought in it, but it wasn’t until much later in life–like about a year ago when I began seriously researching a different war, the war that dominated the politics of my youth. (You know the one I’m talking about.)

Twenty years before we got into Vietnam, when the Big War was going on– the one where we drove the Nazis back into their holes– most of us Americans who were alive at that time, early 1940’s, banded together for the purpose of winning the damned thing.

At that time, women played a large part in our collective effort to defeat the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Emperor-worshipping Japan), but what the women were doing then was not much connected to combat. You’ve probably heard that old song from the period about Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B. That song, always sung by a female vocal group, is closely associated with the role of our women during World War II–to mostly act in supportive roles, Stateside.

All that changed (like everything else) in the 1960’s when women became more and more directly involved in our military endeavors. By the time of Desert Storm, women were taking some combat roles.

Lt. Col. Lory Whitehead’s poems include profound reflections of her experience in war, most notably in Kosovo.

What I would like to bring to your attention today is a poem that whe wrote and published in her 2014 book, reluctant warriors. The poem I have selected is: mama’s two hands. I never in my life thought I would read anything like this, but as it turns out, I have read it, and perhaps you should too. Read ’em and weep.

mama was a soldier, her right hand

knew how to hold a salute

and had learned to fire

handguns and automatic weapons,

even grenade launchers

that strong hand waved men

forward as she led them

into harm’s way.

and covered her eyes in pain

at memorial services

for fallen comrades.

mama was mama, her left hand

held a nursing baby to her breast

and was always available

to erase the tears of toddlers

frightened by loud noises.

that was the gentle hand, it pulled

errant children out of danger

and toasted the living

at weddings and christenings.

poor mama, it was often difficult

to keep each separate hand

in its proper place

and always the right hand

would be envying what

the left hand was doing.

RelWarrior
(Copyright © 2014 by Lory Whitehead)

Reading a poem like this made me realize just how much the world has changed, even in the time-range of my lifetime. And this world is still changing, probably getting faster and faster. Because: while humans have always been changing, modern technology has enabled us to step up the pace of change, exponentially. I’m just hoping it does not spins out of control beyond repair.

Nevertheless, if our world does ever spin out of control, my ultimate hope is in Christ, which is to say, God. Not any man, nor woman.

Smoke

From Munich to Hormuz

September 12, 2015

In his 1972 journalistic opus, The Best and the Brightest,

http://www.amazon.com/Best-Brightest-Kennedy-Johnson-Administrations/dp/0330238477/

David Halberstam quotes President Lyndon Johnson, who made a speech on July 28, 1965, which included these words:

 

“We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

“Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle  would be renewed in one country and then another country, (and) bring with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.”

 

What history actually brought, in the years that followed, was this lesson:  the “larger and crueler conflict” of which LBJ spoke happened anyway, in spite of our confident, prolonged military efforts to arrest communist aggression in southeast Asia beginning in 1965.

The best laid plans of mice and men never work out as they were planned. This is the tragedy of human government, and even perhaps, of human history itself.

On that press conference occasion in 1965, President Johnson was announcing an escalation of the war in Vietnam, with new troop deployments increasing from 75,000 to 125,000. The total number of American soldiers eventually  sent to fight in Vietnam, before the conflagration ended in 1975, would far surpass that 125,000 that he was announcing on that fateful day.

If you go back and study what wars and negotiative agreements were forged between the leaders of nations in the 20th-century, you will see that our species has a long record of hopeful expectations for peace and safety that failed to manifest in the triumphant ways that we had expected.

After World War I, the victorious Allies, congregating in Versailles, France, went to great lengths to construct a peace deal that would last. . . that would last, as they hoped, in a way that would render their armisticed Great War to be the War to End all Wars.

A few years later, a foxy German dictator named Hitler worked himself into a position of systematically and stealthily destroying that Treaty of Versailles.

When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in 1938, and worked out a peace agreement which would allow Hitler to obscond Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain returned to London with the now infamous assessment, Peace in our time!

Look what happened after that.

That failed Munich agreement is the one to which President Johnson referred in his 1965 escalation speech. As quoted above, he mentioned what “we learned from Hitler at Munich.”

What historical lesson did we learn from history as a result of Chamberlain’s naivete at Munich?

Maybe this: You cannot always, if ever, trust your enemy. Especially if the arc of history is rising in his (the enemy’s) direction. Which it was (rising), like it or not, for Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in 1938.

Years later, after Hitler and his Nazi terrorizers had scared the hell out of most everybody in the civilized world, the postwar scenario unearthed in WWII’s ashes  revealed this: a new ideological death-struggle between the Capitalist West and and the spectre of advancing Communism.

During that postwar period–1940s through the 1970s or ’80s–the rising fear that dominated both sides (Capitalist vs Communist) became an obsession for many national leaders. On both sides,  brave men and women were called, and took upon themselves, the perilous burden of defending themselves and their own against the horrible deprivations of the other side.

I grew up during that time. And I can tell you this: At that time, the fears about “Communism” were very real and threatening to many, if not most, Americans. And I daresay that massive fear of “the enemy” was dominant on the Soviet side as it was for us.

Then History threw us a real curve in the late 1940s when Mao and the Chinese communists ran (our man) Chiang Kai-shek out of the mainland (to Taiwan) and established their Asian version of what the Soviets were attempting to establish in eastern Europe.

This Chinese Communist threat is what our national leaders greatly feared in the 1950s and ’60s, when we began to fear the spread of Maoist communism into what remained of (largely third-world) southeast Asia.

Long story short, this fear and loathing of creeping Chinese communism is what got us into, and eventually sucked us into, the war in Vietnam.

Now we all know how that turned out.

What is happening in the world today is not unlike what was happening then. It’s all slouching toward unpredictable, though predictably tragic, human history.

For us in the West now, the great fear is what life would be like under the domination of Islamic Jihad, which is to say, ISIS, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Al-qaida, or whatever stronghold ultimately controls that emerging world military threat. (I’m not talking about the “good Muslims”, whoever they may be.)

Hence, many folks today, me included, do not trust any arrangement that our President and/or Secretary of State could set up with Iran. We do remember, as LBJ alluded to, “Munich.”

But we also remember Vietnam, which began–as President’s Johnson escalation speech reference attests– as a military effort to prevent another “Munich” outcome.

In our present time, ever present in our mind is Iraq; we see what is happening there now, after we went to all that blood, sweat and tears to secure that nation against Sadamic Sunni abuse and/or Khomeini Shiite totalitarianism.

As Churchill did not trust Hitler, while Chamberlain did trust him: our principle ally Netanyahu does not trust Khameini and the Iranians, while Obama does trust them.

Back in the 1930s-’40s, which assessment was correct? Churchill’s.

In our present situation, which assessment of Iranian motives is correct, Netanyahu’s or Obama’s?

To try and  figure out–as historical precedent and historical possibility bears down upon us– how our contemporary peace efforts will play out in the chambers and killing fields of power, is like. . .well. . . The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

And we are now, as we were then, on the eve of certain destruction.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntLsElbW9Xo

Did we survive the last time? Did the free world survive?

You tell me.

 

Smoke

The Old Men and the Young

July 25, 2015

If ghosts could speak, they would probably agree with what the old man said. Sitting on the lowered gate of his black pickup truck, Ramus was saying that old men make wars; but young men fight them.

Now while we understand there is some truth in such a statement,  we all know that it’s not really as simple as that. Nothing in this life is so easily explained, especially the thing called war.

Ramus blinked both his eyes at the same time. It was a habit he had. Some crows were making a ruckus in the nearby hickory, but he paid no attention to them.

“Consider Medgar Evers: he was a young man,” Ramus said. “He slogged his way across Europe, along with thousands of other Allied soldiers, to arrive triumphantly in Germany and then knock the hell out of the Nazi war machine. So he contributed to that great collective effort through which we won the big war. But then he came back to Mississippi and was told to go to the back of the bus.

“So, at the end of his homeward journey, Medgar entered, almost involuntarily, into another great war. It was an old war that had been started by old men. That is to say: men who we think of as old because they had lived and died long ago—men who, in centuries past, had embodied the fallacies and the limitations and atrocities of their own era. Those men had brought his ancestors to America in slave ships. It was a helluva an evil thing to do, but that’s what was happening at that time; there was shit just as bad going on over in Africa that enabled the slavetraders to do what they did, and that’s what started all this trouble we got now.

“Any trouble you find on the face of the earth is traceable to shit that happened a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t know if it ever ends. I hope one day. . .”

Behind Ramus and his truck, the morning sun was peeking up from behind distant pinetops. For whatever reason we know not what, the nearby troop of bothersome crows decided to vacate the hickory tree they’d been in, and get the hell out of dodge. Their sudden departure presented a scene of black wings flapping out against a cloudless summer sky. Ramus glanced at their disturbance, but gave it not a thought. In these mountains, their antics were as old as the hills.

The volume of Ramus’ speech, which had steadily increased in order to compete with the birds, now rescinded to a soft, summary tone. “The Mississippi man’s newfound battle—a great struggle into which he found himself caught up, by default—it eventually killed him. So he was a young man who never tasted the privilege of becoming an old man. Although he had marched with the victors in World War II, the battle that he found simmering back home was the one that put him in his grave.

“In 1963, only six months before Kennedy was killed, Medgar Evers was shot dead in his own front yard in Jackson Mississippi. He had just come from speaking to some brothers and sisters at the New Jerusalem church.”

That quiet following the crows’ departure was blissful.

“But I got to go now: places to go and people to see.” Ramus said. He slid off the tailgate, called to his old hound dog and prepared to leave. His talk about old men, young men, and old wars was put on the shelf of memory for a while.

Now in 1969, a new war, hot off the press, was being waged. But it was fast becoming an old one. Young men were dying by the thousands. Old men too, and women and children. What else is new?

VietMem2

The scene above is an excerpt from the new novel being written:

King of Soul